In a unanimous ruling, the New Jersey Supreme Court has declared that police officers improperly used the smell of marijuana as a basis to search a man’s car on the New Jersey Turnpike in 2016. The decision allows the man to withdraw his guilty plea to a weapons offense. This ruling comes after Governor Phil Murphy signed a law in 2019 that prohibits police from using the odor of cannabis as probable cause for searches, making such cases “likely be few and far between.”
The defendant in the case, Cornelius Cohen, was stopped by police while driving on the Turnpike in January 2016. The officer claimed to smell a strong odor of raw marijuana coming from the car, leading to a search where no marijuana was found, but a rifle and revolver were discovered in the engine compartment. The Supreme Court determined that the search should have ended when no marijuana was found in the passenger compartment, stating that a generalized smell of marijuana does not justify a search of every compartment of a vehicle.
Cohen’s attorney, Raymond Hamlin, expressed satisfaction with the ruling, stating that it vindicates their position. The decision overturns a previous ruling by the Appellate Division, allowing the evidence of guns found during the search to be entered into evidence against Cohen. The case will now be remanded back to the lower courts.
The Supreme Court’s ruling highlights the importance of ensuring that searches are reasonable in scope and adhere to constitutional standards. It also emphasizes that the recent legalization of recreational marijuana in New Jersey, which decriminalized possession and altered the criteria for reasonable suspicion, did not have a retroactive effect on cases like Cohen’s.
This ruling sets a precedent for law enforcement in New Jersey and clarifies the limitations on using the smell of marijuana as probable cause for vehicle searches. It underscores the need for police officers to obtain proper search warrants when expanding their searches beyond the car’s interior.